Cowboys Not Included
Dan Trachtenberg's Prey (probably not showing at a cinema near you, but available to stream on Mouse+) is set in the early 18th century somewhere in continental North America. Naru (Amber Midthunder) is a young Comanche woman who burns to be taken seriously by the rest of her tribe – every day she goes off and practices with the tomahawk she inherited from her late father, and with which she has attained an alarming degree of proficiency, but there never seems to be much question of her being allowed to hunt with the young men of the tribe. This is particularly galling given that her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers) has just been chosen as their war chief.
One day Naru is about her illicit practice when she is disturbed by an ominous rumbling from the sky: fire flashes there. Not long after, another young hunter is attacked by a lion and disappears. Taabe leads a party of young men to find the lost hunter and kill the beast, and Naru manages to persuade them to take her along. But something has scared the big cat off before it can finish off the wounded man. Taabe and the others see this as good news – only Naru pauses to wonder what could be responsible. Huge footprints and strangely-mutilated animal carcasses only add to her concerns.
Still no-one will listen to her, as she is only a young woman and not taken seriously by the men around her (there may possibly be a bit of a socio-political subtext here), and so she and her dog end up going off into the wilderness in pursuit of whatever this strange new beast may be. She is naturally more than a little surprised when it proves to be an horrific ogre which takes body parts as trophies from the men it hunts, has phosphorescent green blood, and can turn invisible at will...
The cockroach-like qualities of the Predator franchise are, of course, well-known – John McTiernan's original movie is a no-debate-necessary classic of action sci-fi, but as far as all the sequels go... well, let's just say that every time it seems like the bottom of the barrel has been reached and the series has finally expired, something new crawls into view. But the consistency of the downward trajectory, in terms of quality, is actually quite impressive – the only uptick, probably, being that 2010's Predators was better than the second Alien Vs Predator movie (it would be difficult to be worse, or at least more revolting). I suppose we can credit the franchise's refusal to do the decent thing and just expire to the sheer quality of the first film.
Now, however, I find myself obliged to do a complete rethink of my attitudes here, as Prey – which is, as you have probably figured out for yourself, technically Predator 7, a prequel to all the other films – is the first entry in the series which isn't somehow a bit dispiriting in at least 30 years. I might even go so far as to say that it's actually rather good.
Novelty goes a long way when it comes to revitalising these old franchises, of course. Doing a 'historical' Predator movie is, with hindsight, such a no-brainer that one wonders why it has taken so long for it to happen; if Prey does well then I would expect a slew of these things over the next few years. This film, set in the great American wilderness against a backdrop of conflict between Native Americans and French trappers, sometimes feels rather as though the Predator has crashed into the middle of The Revenant – an intriguing and rather exciting idea. (It got me thinking as to what other worthy historical movies could be thus improved by the insertion of hostile extra-terrestrials. I'll let you know what Julian Fellowes thinks of my pitch for Downton Abbey 3: Flayed Alive.)
The shift in setting has necessitated a slight rejig in the usual aesthetics of one of these films – there is still gore and dismemberment aplenty, but less heavy firepower: lances, arrows, axes, and so on, do most of the work. In a nice touch, the Predator's own equipment is a bit less high-tech than in the present-day movies – the Yautja don't seem to have invented that shoulder-mounted plasma cannon yet, but the (dare I say it) iconic invisibility screen is still present and correct. In many ways this is absolutely all the things you want to see from a Predator film, with none of the extraneous stuff that started to creep in from the first sequel onwards. (Well, now that I think on it, the classic Alan Silvestri theme isn't there.)
The really neat thing about the premise of Prey is that not only does it shake up and revitalise a franchise which has felt moribund for over a decade, it also allows 20th Century Not-Fox to score some easy points for making a film which is built around a powerful message of feminine empowerment and also showcases performers of Native American heritage. (An alternate dub of the film where the Comanche characters speak their own language, rather than English, is also available. I gave that a miss, but I can see how it might work better than the 'mainstream' version.)
I would be lying if I said that Prey handles its feminist subtext with enormous grace and subtlety, but I've seen this sort of thing done much worse elsewhere, while the tribal background to the story only seems natural given the premise of the film. It's a very different presentation of Native American life to most that I can think of – I watched the movie with the spousal co-unit and she was quite complimentary about the careful depiction of just how the Comanche lived – and I almost regret the decision to advertise the film as a Predator movie in advance; getting the audience to watch what seemed to be a rather earnest drama about Native American society only to confront them with a ravening big-name monster would be tremendous coup de theatre.
As it is, it can still come across as worthy and perhaps sometimes just a little bit slow – the beautiful landscapes and Midthunder's engaging performance go some way to making up for this, and the script is also quite cleverly constructed. The action sequences and visual effects are also well up to expectations. It's a shame this film isn't getting more of a cinema release, but nevertheless – I'm not sure it quite qualifies as an exciting new dawn for the Predator series, but it's still the most interesting thing to have happened to it in decades.